Tuesday 24th August - Today we move on from Kochi to Coimbatore. This will be an overnight stopover for the early morning train up to Ooty. More on that later.
We managed to ship our purchases to date off to the Philippines. That is an exercise in itself. We had gathered over 13kg of items, from spices to lanterns to cushion covers. India has a policy of cloth wrapping for its international packages, so we had to go to a wrapping service this morning. First the box had to be made from a collection of cardboard boxes, which was then tied with string and taped up. They then make a bag out of cloth which is sown up to form a tight fit. The joints are then sealed with wax and the address details written in marker pen onto the cloth. It is time consuming and cost only 150 rupees. Nothing compared with the 2780 rupees for the airmail postage cost. This is the most expensive postage cost i have ever had to pay. More expensive than the cost of the contents. Lesson learnt there I think!
That sorted we checked out of the Chennatt Homes and headed for the ferry terminal. It is possible to get to Ernakulam by bus, but it makes a change to take the ferry, which leaves from next to the Seagull hotel, costing 2.5 rupees and taking about 20 minutes for the crossing. They leave often enough too. As if the walk to the port with our luggage didn't make me wet enough with sweat, the rain began and we got an extra soaking. Shame as it was now misty so couldn't see much on the crossing. Took an autorickshaw to the KSRTC bus station and had a while until the bus to Coimbatore was due to arrive. The guy in the ticket office said it would arrive at 1pm, so we had plenty of time to buy some food for the journey. At 12:40 the bus arrived, and by 12:50 it had left...fortunately with us on board. You cannot trust the timing you are told!
Getting out of Ernakulam was a bit smelly, as the bus had to crawl behind a rubbish truck for a while. We were ready to puke when luckily he got a break and overtook it. Pheww...
Rs131 and about 5 1/2 hours on the road with a few stops on the way at non-descript bus stations and towns. When we finally arrived at Coimbatore, it was crazy and dark. There was no way i felt like staying there, and the train leaves here at 5:15am in the morning, Plus we would have to be up even earlier to get to the station and buy tickets. Decided to head straight for Mettupalayam. That sounded easy. Unfortunately, the buses going there go from the new bus station. Another bus ride across town on bus 150 for Rs5. The traffic was nuts. We were very hungry by this stage, having not had much o eat all day. Thinking there would be food at the new bus station, we joined the scrum to fight our way onto bus 150 along with a hundred other bodies. A pain when you are carrying luggage. Bad decision...the new bus stand has no food...absolutely zero. To top it off, the first bus to Mettupalayam had space then kicked us off because we had luggage. The next bus wouldn't let us on with luggage..and the next. I was getting angry by this stage, and got annoyed with a group who thought it was funny. Nope it wasn't. Fortunately, a kind person came to the rescue and we made the next bus. Be aware that the private buses won't allow luggage, only the government ones. The time, nearly 8pm. Tired and hungry. Cheap fare at Rs11 for the 90 minute journey.
There was almost no break in the traffic between Coimbatore and Mettupalayam, as it follows the national highway. Honk honk goes the traffic as if it will make a difference. It doesn't, as everyone does the same, so it gets ignored.
Arrived at Mettupalayam in the rain and chaos. Fortunatley, it didn't take long to find somewhere to stay, at the Welcome Inn for Rs350. Nothing flash but ok. Next door was the Sri Annapoorna veg restaurant. Initially they said most things were finished as they were closing, but they agreed to do us something. We ended up ordering too much as we were over-hungry but couldn't eat it. They wrapped the leftovers up for us and we gave it to a beggar on the street. He smelled of alcohol, so at least he wasn't going to beg and drink on an empty stomach!
Stocked up with food for tomorrow's train journey at a store across the road, and went back for a much needed shower. It amazes me how much dirt you can gather on your skin and under your nails by just riding a few buses here. My skin changed colour after a shower. I knew i was whiter under that dirt!
Wednesday 25th Aug - At 3am in the morning a siren went off nearby. Have no idea why other than an alarm clock for the Muslims to get up for prayers? Managed to doze off again and woke abruptly again when my rooster alarm clock went of at 5:30am. Dressed and out quick to head for the train station about 5 minutes walk away.
To get a ticket for the train, the procedure supposed to be to go to the station master's office to get a token for the train as he knows what seating space is left, but i went direct to the ticket office instead and he wrang the station officer to get authorisation to issue me with tickets. At only 8 rupees each, it must rate as the cheapest train journey in India. After collecting the tickets we had to join a queue on the narrow gauge platform. Already had many dozens of passengers waiting in line. It is classed as a 'wait-listed/non-reservation' queue. For passengers that arrive on the main Nilgiri express train coming from Coimbatore, if they have a through ticket to Ooty then they are allowed to board the toy train first. Once in, then the wait-listed queue is allowed to board, a few at a time. The station staff have a tricky job of getting the carriages full and taking the hassle from passengers who complain about their seating. Some ladies got on who had no ticket and were just told to turn up, so it isn't essential, especially if you are a foreigner. Luggage can be stored on racks in the carriage immediately after the engine compartment, so we avoided too much discomfort. The carriages were full, with little space to move. A crazy group of guys sitting behind us promised for an entertaining journey. The engine puffed steam and tooted its horn as it prepared for setting off. Engineers went arond doing their final oiling of the rolling stock. The engine needed to build up pressure before setting off.
At 7:15am train 662 set off on our wonderful little steam train driven journey. Slowww...the pace was like the other toy trains journeys on my last visit. Pretty, and slow paced. Our carriage was shared with a couple of ladies from Australia, another lady from New Zealand, and a group of Kerala lads on vacation.
The Swiss built Nilgiri train runs on 1metre track and was completed in 1903. The 46km journey is the steepest climb in Asia, needing a rack and pinion system between the rails for the train to climb on for the section up to Coonoor. With the final height at Ooty of 2,600m. At an average speed of 10.4km/hr, it is the slowest in India.
The first stop was at Kallar at 7:40am. Only a few minutes, so didn't get off.
The next stop was at Adderley view point under an hour away. It gave us chance to take photos of the train and stretch our legs.
Third stop at Hillgrove station was a food stop for Bhaji and Samosas plus the standard coffee and chai and a nice view of the tea plantations. Many of the monkeys roaming around were diseased. Not sure why.
Fourth stop at Runnymede for more tea plantation views. A group of four teenagers joined our carriage this time. With no space left, they had to stand. Now things got nuts. The guys started singing and going crazy. Funny, and what makes train travel in India such a great experience. Something always happens to add flavour to the journey. On with the chanting. Sounded tribal almost...the Indian equivalent of the Hakka. A brief passage through the lovely named Lovedale station.
The longest stop was at the next station of Coonoor. We learnt from the guys in our carriage that, apparently, the Onam festival in Kerala has a main day on the 4th day when they do the Tiger dance, which happens to be tomorrow. One guy in the carriage had some photos of folks painted like animals in Thrissur. Could have stopped there had we known about it.
Our next to last stop was Kateri. Set in a nice location.
As if by accident we rolled into Udhagamandalam, the summer capital of the Chennai government established by the British...AKA Ooty (No surprises why it gets an abbreviated name is it!) at 11:45am as a surprise.
Slightly drizzling and cold. The mobs of taxi and rickshaw drivers as we exited the station was a bit much. Got clear of it before deciding what to do next. Arranged with an auto driver to take us to place on our list. After checking a few places we settled on the Sweekar Hotel. Run by a really nice Indian gentleman. Friendly and at only Rs350 is good value.
A menu was available at Sweekar which is delivered by courier service from town. Really nice Hyderabadi and Mughalai curries. Just what we needed as we hadn't really had a proper meal today. Fed and rejuvenated, we headed out for a walk to explore. Well, we both had to agree that much of Ooty is a mess. Not one of our favourite places. We had read that some people like its charm. We couldn't find it where we went. Right now it is undergoing major works by the exit to the bus station and everywhere is like a quagmire. There seems to be really horrible habit of guys using almost everywhere as a toilet. The stench of urine in many of the narrow alleys is overpowering and disgusting.
We went to the boating lake (entry Rs5) and spent 30 minutes riding a pedalo (Rs80). Maybe we were too tired after not much sleep, or maybe we are just unfit? Either way, we were worn out and half and hour was enough for us.
Across the road is the rather interesting 'Thread Garden'. All of the plants have been wired and wound with thread, which had been built over 12 years. It is a bit dark inside, and the displays are a bit old, dusty and less than lively looking.
After a further hour wandering around the town we came to the firm conclusion that we weren't goin't to stay more than one night, and we would head for Mysore tomorrow.
Back to the lodge for a nice cup of chai and rest up for a while. There had to be more to ooty than we had already seen, so headed towards the main market along racecourse road. Sure enough there is more to this place. Spent a couple of hours around the commercial area and had a nice meal at the kebab house followed by a nice coffee at the Batista cafe, the smartest cafe in town, before catching an auto back to the lodge. Ok, we admit that our early impression formed by going the boathouse direction was a bit soon, bit it isn't as we expected on that side of town. It does get better!
Thursday 26th - To make a change from government buses, we booked a minibus to Mysore for 4:30pm this afternoon costing 150 rupees each. Should only take 4 hours compared with 5 1/2 on the bus. This gave us plenty of time during the day to fit in some extra sights.
First stop was St Stephen's Church on the hill above town, which was built in 1829. Not too exciting but a nice building. An eerie overgrown cemetary behind it was the final accommodation for some of the brits who founded this area.
Moved on to the Botanical Gardens (Rs20 entrance plus Rs30 camera fee). This is something that annoys me about India...the stupid camera fee. Even worse if you should want to take video. Hardly any other country on the planet charges this. And what a scam it is. Costs more than the entrance fee too. That said, the gardens are nice. Very reminiscent of the UK as the climate is similar. A high proportion of the plants, trees and shrubs are available in the UK too. A fossilised tree trunk believed to by over 20 million years old makes an unusual feature. Worth passing an hour or two.
We had to check out of the lodge so took an auto back there. Noticed on the way that we passed a cinema, the Assembly rooms theatre, which was showing the English movie 'Salt' with Angelina Jolie. We saw it in Penang back in July.
Ordered another excellent takeaway at the lodge. The courier they are using is really good quality food. Hopefully, we shouldn't need to eat for the rest of the day.
The minibus arrived late and we boarded along with 2 other travellers. No space inside, so all luggage had to go on the roof. We got as far as the bus station at the bottom of the hill in town and the driver stopped and got out, along with the guy in charge. After 20 minutes we all began to get annoyed. No sign of them and running even later. Arguments broke out when he returned and it turned out that some more passengers were late, so they were waiting. After over an hour from when we were supposed to set off tempers were frayed, but we finally got away...to stop again less than 5 minutes down the road to collect more passengers. Considering that we chose this option to shorten the journey and have a bit more comfort, we were squashed with no leg room, much later than we had hoped and our luggage on the roof with the rain pouring down. And it cost significantly more than a normal bus. Anyway...
The driver put his foot down and was possessed after that. The route went through the national park. No wonder that the animals are nowhere to be seen. With a highway thundering through it...honking horns and revving engines...the poor timid animals have all run for cover and more remote areas. One of the passengers at the front of the bus claimed to have seen elephants in the dark. We didn't see anything, but then again our view wasn't that good.
Hurtling around every bend and a music DVD belting out thumping Indian pop, it was the least relaxing way to get to Mysore. Got to the point that Shiera was feeling ill and i wasn't too good either. Had to ask for the thump to be switched off.
During the journey we changed state, from Tamil-Nadu to Karnataka. The road evened out after a while and they broke for a chai break for 10 minutes before continuing. We got into Mysore at nearly 10pm. Tired!
Straight into an auto and picked the first reasonable sounding place at the Hotel Dasaprakash at Ghandi square for 541Rs per night in a less than sparkling room. A promise of warm water for a shower at 5am. Until then, cold only.
We tried to go out and find something to drink, but by this time everywhere was closed. The hotel couldn't offer anything either. What we did find on our walkabout was a better hotel, the Bombay Tiffany, a couple of minutes away. Put our name down for a room and will move tomorrow.
Friday 27th - Had breakfast in the Dasaprakash restaurant. Only indian on offer. Dosa and the usual daal, sambal etc and a sweet coffee. Then checked out and went to the Bombay Tiffany Lodge where we had reserved a room last night. Much cleaner, with TV hot shower and much quieter. Delux room for 500 plus tax. Spoke good English and were helpful with answering any questions. They also have a room delivery service for a fairly good menu.
Off to the railway station to book our tickets to Hampi for 31st August from Bangalore and the connecting train from Mysore. A day later than planned as the train was full, but it is ok. An easy enough booking system and a separate queue for paying by credit card. However, nobody in the queue was allowed to use their card, with some excuse that none of us could understand, so had to use cash anyway.
Next, a visit to an Incense stick maker who was making upto 6000 a day. They wanted 400 rupees for a bunch of around 60 sticks, which you can get from the market for 30 rupees. Of course they told us that everyone else were poorer alternatives, or fake, or diluted. Oils were also way to expensive too. The usual gambit from these places is to try to get some business, and if you don't buy then they get a little abusive. All we did was visit the place to see them making the sticks, and they ended up being both sarcastic and mildly abusive that we shouldn't go to these places if we weren't prepared to buy something. All Indian's would buy something was his final statement, and he muttered abuse at us as we left. Totally uncalled for.
Passed through the Cauvery crafts store. They have some awesome carved and inlaid rosewood furniture items, which would be on our list for the future when we have a home. Indrah cafe for lunch and a mixed veg thali. Excellent stuff!
Then across the road to the Devaraja market. The Devaraja market is one of those great places to see mounds of technicoloured kum-kum powder, beautiful aromas from the myriad of flower sellers and garland makers, and some of the best fruit and vegetables around. Plenty of hidden agendas going on...most who talk to you want something...either visit their shop, have them as a guide, etc etc. It is easy to get sceptical about human philanthropy after a while in some places. Almost Nobody the whole day who talked to us didn't try to cajole us into something they wanted to offer. Smile, accept it and move on whilst trying to shed their attentions. IT is a fun game after a while.
Found a Beer and booze shop, which are surprisingly frequent here. Another big surprise when we found the 'More Megastore' Supermarket (Narayana Shastri road). Yippee...cereals and some comforts. Makes our stay here a little easier, as we an now do our own breakfasts. Bought a small water heater for our travelling kit for 60 rupees, so we don't have to worry about finding someone to boil us some water.
In the evening we dressed up and aimed for the Maharaja's palace. Shiera was looking beautiful in her Punjabi suit.
The main entrance is also the way in to the Sri Shveta Varahashwari temple....the guy on the entrance said...you can come in...can i have tips? Here we go again. They scowl when you ignore them or refuse. However, we were so lucky. Only on Fridays do they perform the ritual we saw. They make a Palanquin covered in flowers, which is a covered carriage, to carry the shrine's nose or something like that from one building to it's new home in another building. Accompanied by a small band. It's Hindu and complicated, and trying to follow what was happening isn't easy. After the ceremony, everyone, including us, were invited to sit down and take Prassad. Sat in rows, men on one side, ladies opposite, they gave us a banana leaf, followed by the first course of a deliciously sweet mixture. Fingers only. Next was a rice mixture with currants, nuts, cinnamon and other things. Delicious!
Continuing around the perimeter of the palace we stopped to take photos by the entrance facing the palace. The most beautiful view, but not open to the public. Guards came to try and stop us from taking photos. As usual, he then decided it was ok to come closer....you from UK? Yes...you can come closer. Nobody else allowed here...got to the gate...no further he then announced.....ok...you can come inside....How about a tip...I take any curreny....pounds...dollars....i even take rupees!Everyone is on the make aren't they!
Mysore has a Pizza restaurant! The Pizza Corner. Some nice Indian alternatives to a standard pizza place. It has been a long day, so caught a rickshaw back. Legs didn't have enough energy.
Saturday 28th August - The Maharaja's Palace in the morning. Rs200 foreigner (Rs20 Indian). Not allowed to take photos inside the palace, so have to deposit cameras in a security room (Rs5 each camera). No shoes, so they are left at a shoe stand. The palace is the second to be located here, the current one being of British design by Henry Irwin. The interior is stunning. Just as a palace should be. Wonderful stained glass dome ceiling with peacock design. The main hall and function rooms upstairs are abeautiful turquoise scalloped arch design, and stained glass elongated roof. Tiled floors complement it to make an elaborately ostentatious building.
When we were at the Dasaprakash Hotel they delivered a Mysore newspaper in the morning. It had details of a cultural programme that started the day we arrived and will last for 2 months called 'Yagshagana'. The events are spread around the area, but the one of interest, being the nearest and with the only date we could make was titled 'Kalinga Mardhana-Srikrishna Panchajanya', and located at a temple called Sri Krishndhama'. No idea what it meant other than the pictures on the article looked interesting. Why not...let's give it a try!
Yagshakana artists are from around the region, but normally only stage their shows in summer in outdoor venues. During the rainy season they have nothing to do, so this festival was an attempt to give them an opportunity to enact their work in an indoor environment. Not sure what to expect.
The same venue was being used for the temple's guru to present to the public. We arrived early and struggled to find the place. Around the corner was a beautiful temple. Very colorful gopuram and decorated in masses of flowers around the deities.
With plenty of time to spare we joined the balcony viewing area of the temple to see what was going on. More like a lecture and getting plenty of applause from the crowd. Being totally in Hindi meant we had no idea what was being said of course. But the crowd were all enthralled by what he had to say.
The Guru finished at about 7:20 and within 10 minutes the stage had been cleared and the show began. The Indian equivalent of a Chinese opera is one way of describing it. An elaborate story all played out in Hindi, so no chance of understanding. The costumes were superb. Like the Kathakali dance in Kerala, but even more ornate, and involving many more characters. Decorative painted faces and descriptive movements exagerated to accent the story. A cross between old style vaudeville and widow twanky from the Christmas pantomime...but with Indian style. Not a good picture, but hard to describe it otherwise. It was due to go on for three hours, and Shiera was getting hungry, so we didn't stay until the end. The Rickshaw driver had come back for us, as he was overcharging us as usual, so one evening at our expense made his whole day's income. He was pleasant thought.
Another visit to the Pizza Corner to finish the evening off, before walking back to the hotel. Busy day and a diverse one.
Sunday 29th August - Visited Chamundi Hill, which overlooks Mysore. Easy enough to get to by bus 201, costing Rs 19 each from the central bus stand. Richshaw drivers want from Rs150 to Rs200 for the same and take longer. The new buses are really comfortable. The one we had had big windows for a clear view.
The top of Chamundi hill is like a small village surrounding the Sri Chamundeswari Temple, which closes between 2pm and 3:30pm. A track leads downhill to the Nandi statue with a great place to stop off on the way, for a great view over Mysore.
From here we picked up a bus downhill and got off at the Zoo for Rs9. We expected it to rain as the skies were getting grey, but took the risk as it was convenient stop. Rs30 Entry plus Rs10 for camera. Sure enough, after less than half an hour, it chucked it down. Huddled under a gazebo with a load of soaked Indian folk until it eased off.
The zoo is well organised with a set route around the park so that you get to see all of the animals. Gaur, Elephant, Giraffe, zebra, lions, bears, dear, Gorilla, Nilgai are amongst the inmates. I did think that the animals were all well kept and seemed content enough. Expected to see some Tigers, but alas none. Not sure where they were, but no signs for them either.
From outside the zoo we caught a horse drawn Carriage to Pizza corner for dinner, then off to the Maharaja's palace for 7pm.
We had a time limit as the Maharaja's Palace is lit up between 7pm to 8pm on Sundays only. The same Calesa driver took us to the entrance. Free to get in. Wow.... So pretty. It is an attractive palace in the daylight, but at night when lit up, it is like a fairytale palace. Gorgeous for photos, and a military band plays music throughout. A wonderful experience and well done to the Mysore palace for doing it.
Half a day of just catching up and watching movies on TV before heading out in the afternoon. Another nice Thali from the Indra cafe. This time a north Indian one, which, to be honest was nicer than the south Indian version.
Off to the City Bus station to catch bus 303 to Brindhavan Gardens (Rs14). Quite a way and slow as it was near peak time for the schools, so our bus was overflowing. The gardens are famous in the Bollywood movie scene as a favoured location. It isn't until you get there that you realise why. Set below a dam wall as a backdrop, they are in an amazing location. Even with the rain coming down fairly consistently, they were still worth the visit. Rising up a slope to the excellent Royal Orchid Hotel. The view from the top is one of the most dramatic gardens i think i have seen to date.
We stopped in the Orchid for a coffee and sandwich...cuddled up in the beautiful decorative swinging double chair swing. Gentle music playing in the background. All in all a romantic and magic location for a hotel. They have a spa, a ballroom, outdoor marble chess board, and a swimming pool. At Rs5000 for a double including buffet breakfast, you get plenty of style for your rupee.
One of the main things the gardens are famed for is the sound and light show at 7pm. From being fairly quiet when we arrived, the place was heaving by the beginning of the show. There is a grandstand area around the musical fountain across the dam lake which didn't last as long as i expected, but was nice enough.
Didn't hang around long after the show as it would be hectic getting out, so caught the next bus out, which leave every 10 minutes after the show finishes.
We are moving on tomorrow and had to get ourselves organised.